The Null Hypothesis: A rational basis for scepticism

This was posted as a response to this blog, Raised by ‘Theological Conspiracy Theorists’: How I Lost my Faith, concerning a former Young Earth Creationist who lost her faith due to uncovering the absurd lies that movement makes about reality. The author betrayed signs of missing religion – understandable, given her whole life has been steeped in it. I attempted to give some advice on how to stay the course and accept her scepticism (I used the American spelling below in view of the audience). The last line was thrown in because the likelihood is the author was hanging on to faith for emotional and moral, not intellectual, reasons.

Subsequent responses are reproduced from with kind permission by Tyler Francke.


“I’m only just starting to claw my way out of deep, angry skepticism back toward religion in general.”

Why not try calm, rational skepticism? Religion has lied to you once, and so it’s quite possible it’ll continue to lie to you.

While YEC is absurdly wrong, take a look at the truth claims even ‘mainstream’ religion makes. Cutting right to the heart of the matter, let’s examine the resurrection. Note that in science, when making a null hypothesis, we use the most likely answer, then attempt to disprove it.

Thus, in order of increasing likelihood, the resurrection was:

1) Jesus rising from the dead by divine intervention,

2) Jesus arising from the dead due to being an alien, or use of alien technology,

3) Someone made it all up, because no religious figure worth his salt in those days didn’t have a resurrection myth e.g. Osiris, Mithras etc.

Dispassionately examine the evidence for this and then decide which is the most likely answer.

It’s perfectly possible to live a fulfilled, moral and loving life without a trace of religious observance. We are a moral species, it comes from within.

Response from Tyler Francke:

Hi Colin, thanks for visiting this site and for reading this author’s story. I appreciate your perspective, too, and would like to offer a response. The resurrection is something that I accept on faith. I fully acknowledge that if it happened, as I believe it did, it was a miracle, and not something science could predict or explain.

That being said, I still don’t think it’s completely ridiculous. One of the earliest books of the NT, Acts, records the apostle Peter using the resurrection as proof of Jesus’ divinity. If the resurrection was something the disciples had just pulled out of thin air, this probably wouldn’t have been very convincing. Also, scholars believe Acts was written less than 30 years after Jesus’ death, so at least some of the people who witnessed the crucifixion would have still been alive, and should have been able to point out any details that were purely invented (like the resurrection) if, in fact, there were any.

Again, I don’t see this as irrefutable proof of the resurrection, though I might argue that it makes option No. 1 slightly more likely than option 2. :)

Response by me:

With respect, I do not accept belief on faith as a valid argument. Why do you not require proof on this most important aspect of your life, when you would routinely demand proof for far lesser claims? While you may believe faith is a virtue, that is only true in the eyes of a con man like Ken Ham, L. Ron Hubbard or Joseph Smith. It makes for gullible victims, aka. ‘easy marks’.

My point about the null hypothesis, is that you begin with the most likely explanation, and only move on when that has been overturned. Given the great variety of religions and cults across the planet, we must conclude that the event of people making things up and attributing it to the supernatural is not uncommon (see the aforementioned Smith and Hubbard).

On the other hand, no miracle has ever been recorded since the rise of science, which gave us the tools to test such things. Thus, point 3. remains the null hypothesis. You need to disprove it before you even get to the aliens or deities!

Tyler’s 2nd response:

I didn’t say that I have no proof of God’s work in my life. If I hadn’t experienced that, I doubt I ever would have come to religion. But I have, at times, experienced things I can only understand in spiritual terms. You probably think me mistaken, or perhaps deluded, but it is good enough proof for me.

Based on that personal evidence, yes, I choose to take some things on faith, because if God is real, I think it reasonable that he might have, on rare occasions, interacted with us. One of a number of ways I believe I differ with the likes of Ken Ham and other anti-evolutionists is they twist and ignore objective facts about the world around us, and try to teach others to do the same. I don’t think that is good or necessary.

Ah, this is so difficult to explain, particularly in a comment thread. I hope it makes some sense. Thanks for your patience and the respectful nature of your questions.

My 2nd response:

I presume then you mean personal sensations as experience of God? If so, how did you know it was the Christian God, and not one of the countless others?

Con men, psychologists and advertising executives have long known the human mind is a plastic thing – it isn’t that hard to fool. You have set your bar for proof too low.

This is why the scientific method is so valuable – as the great Richard Feynman said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

It should be noted that if a god has interacted with us, there would be measurable traces, unless it covers its tracks afterwards. This idea is lampooned by the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, which states that the Earth is young, but that the FSM tampers with the scientific instruments to make it look old.

Tyler’s 3rd response:

Your first question is a really good one. In reference to one particular experience, the day I converted to Christianity, the main reason I believe the sensations I felt were from the Christian God is because that is the deity to whom I was specifically praying. I wouldn’t expect another god, or flying spaghetti monster, to answer prayers that weren’t directed at them, so I presumed the one that answered my call was the one I was explicitly addressing.

I’ve read about some of the psychological principles I think you’re referring to, and I can’t disagree that, in the some ways, the mind is “a plastic thing.” Suggestion can be incredibly powerful, memories can be incredibly unreliable, etc.

I don’t think what I experienced that day can be discounted as a simple quirk of the brain, however. It actually felt a lot like being high. I’ve wondered before if it might have been a flashback effect of a drug I tried once, but if that’s what it was, it was the most amazingly coincidental timing ever, and it’s never happened since. I really don’t expect to be able to prove to you the validity of my personal experience, but that’s the honest truth of it.

As far as your last point, I disagree that the physical world would necessarily bear measurable witness to interactions with a spiritual being. Christian theologians have long held that faith is of utmost importance to God, and if that’s true, I wouldn’t expect to find undeniable proof of his existence anywhere in nature. That would leave no room for faith.

My 3rd response:

You were praying to a particular deity and received an answer. Have you considered that this was just your subconscious giving you what you wanted? See the Feynman quote again – we are masters of self-deception.

I’ve actually witnessed the phenomenon you described – I was trying out evangelical Christianity for size, so went to a summer camp. In the big tent, with live bands, singing and other forms of evangelical worship, people were falling over, ‘overcome with the spirit’, and was assured some would ‘speak in tongues’. What I saw was mass hysteria causing people to faint as they overdosed on neurotransmitters.

It was a deeply uncomfortable experience and was nearly my last active participation in religious observance. I was actually a deist at this point, though I did not realise that at the time.

If something interacts with the natural world, it will leave a trace; that is an unavoidable circumstance. I would contend that theologians will of course uphold that stance, as without faith, there is no reason to believe at all. The first rule of religion is to program its adherents to replicate it. This is why the overriding decider in what religion you have is which one you were born into, or in your case, were immersed in later in life. It exploits our innate need to belong, for we are a social species.

I appreciate your honesty in not attempting to paint it as anything other than faith. Consider it this way, you have made an assertion based on a personal experience you’ve been unable to replicate, and attributed to a deity without evidence.

To get back to my hypotheses, how do you know it’s not aliens, the admins of the Matrix, or some other phenomenon? You don’t. You had a rush of endorphines and called it God.

I had a similar experience recently, watching Chris Hadfield perform Space Oddity on the International Space Station. I was elated, blown away by the accomplishments that allowed this feat to happen. None required invocation, even reference, to a deity. Thus, it doesn’t require a deity to feel elated or inspired, and a natural explanation is always preferable to a supernatural one – see again the null hypothesis.

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